Agreeing on the problem (but not agreeing that it is a problem)

Agreeing on the problem (but not agreeing that it is a problem) January 19, 2013

I’m digging through some rapidly aging bookmarks and came across two posts here on Patheos from consecutive days earlier this month.

The first post is from Peter Enns, who asks, “Can Evangelical Colleges and Seminaries Be Truly Academic Institutions?

Here is the problem in a nutshell. Many evangelical colleges and seminaries in America were founded in no small part as centers for defending and propagating earlier traditional positions against forces that coalesced in the 19th century: European higher criticism, biblical archaeology, and Darwin (evolution). The questions that get at the heart of evangelical concerns are: when the Bible was written, by whom, and is it historically accurate?

That defensive posture is quite evident in evangelical intuitions today (though not all, of course, and at times modified), but this raises a question for me: Can an institution claim to be fundamentally academic while at the same time centered on defending certain positions that are largely, if not wholly, out of sync with generations of academic discourse outside of evangelical boundaries?

It is common for evangelical institutions to have as part of their statements of faith clear articulations about biblical inerrancy and how that dogmatic starting point (either implicitly or [explicitly]) dictates interpretive conclusions. The question, simply put, is whether such a posture can be called “academic” by generally agreed upon standards – which are standards that evangelicals would quickly agree to in areas that do not touch evangelical dogma.

Another way of putting it is whether evangelical institutions can maintain a credible academic reputation when they officially promulgate positions that are only held within those institutions of similar ideology and not the academic discipline of biblical scholarship in general.

I was still trying to figure out whether it was a good thing or a bad thing that Enns was writing this while employed at my alma mater, when the very next day I came across this post on the “Thoughtlife” blog on Patheos’ evangelical channel, “Is Mark Noll Right? Is There No Evangelical Mind?“:

Schools like Union, Wheaton, Taylor, King’s College, Gordon, Messiah, Grove City, and my own institution, Boyce College, have ramped up their academic programs. I of course have concerns about an over-correction in this area among some institutions; some Christian colleges and universities are simply desperate for academic credibility, which poses a serious threat to ongoing scriptural fidelity. Ours is a serious intellectualism (the most serious, should be, given Matt 22:37), but it is a bounded one. We should advocate a confessional intellectualism (which, admittedly, many academics will distrust, and which may hamper the already difficult process of academic recognition).

So the good news is that there seems to be complete agreement on the nature of the problem Enns identifies.

And the bad news is there still seems to be disagreement that it’s actually a problem.

If you really believe that “unbounded” scholarship “poses a serious threat to ongoing scriptural fidelity,” then you have already conceded that you do not believe the scripture can withstand intellectual scrutiny. This “threat” only makes sense if you believe that the scriptures are a fraud, vulnerable to exposure.

With defenders like that, the Bible doesn’t need enemies.


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  • Madhabmatics

    I grew up in north Alabama in a community where maybe four people in my graduating class (of 34 people) went onto community college. I’m not a “rich city folk” trying to say that poor rural people are dumb – I don’t think they are. But I know from my experience here and that of my family that lots of local churches in my area, and other areas like mine, try to convince otherwise canny people that they are actually dumb and not capable of dealing with things that they are perfectly capable of dealing with in order to stop them from even beginning to consider outside things.

    edit: That’s why David Barton is so popular here. People (who, if they actually sat down and thought about it, would have a great grasp on history) are told not to even try to engage with fields like history because even though they could do it, they can’t trust themselves – and since they can’t trust themselves, anyone ol’ liberal could trick you with fancy words. So you should let one of our experts (David Barton) tell you how it is, because he can’t be fooled!

  • Madhabmatics

    In other words my point isn’t “Rural people are stupid” it’s that “People try to convince rural people that they aren’t qualified to think about these issues to stop them from even getting in the circumstances where they can suffer from cognitive dissonance.”

  • Kiba

    Remember, while your brains are crashing from the words “Optical intercourse”, be sure to glance down a bit and take in the full horror of the nearby phrase “making eye babies”.

    Yeah, the “making eye babies” part induced my gag reflex and almost made me do myself an injury from rolling my eyes so hard. 

  • Random_Lurker

    I honestly don’t think it’s because they are afraid of facing questions.  Religion in general and fundamentalism in particular mash together “worship” and “belief.”  So if your beliefs are different, you are corrupting the worship.  AKA, heresy, as noted in the original article.  This prompts their behavior before they even get to the point of asking which view is right or not.

    Of course, I’m sure it extends into that kind of denialism-as-fear for some individuals, but it isn’t needed to explain the behavior of the group.

    On a side note, Optical Intercourse? Is there anything that they won’t sexualize? Seriously, for a group supposedly not motivated by worldly desires, evangelicals have sex on their mind more often then a horny teenager in a strip club.

  • I believe it is anecdotally reported that in states with more socially conservative stances there is an odd tendency for there to be more strip bars per square mile. :P

  • banancat


    Many Atheists try hard to make it NOT real.

    I’m an atheist and I tried very hard to believe that God is real.  I grew up religious and I live in a religion-dominated society and I tried very very hard to believe.  I am an atheist in spite of my efforts, not because of them.  And this experience is very common among atheists because it’s really not great to intentionally be part of a hated minority.  I guess your “many” is vague enough to give you plausible deniability, but your idea of what atheists go through is certainly not what most atheists go through.

  • It’s not “urban” or “rural.”  It’s the repressiveness of the religion, which are equally repressive irrespective of geography.

    I grew up in an area with many members of the First Baptist Church of Hammond (locally referred to as the “Hammond Baptist Church”) .  They are all urban or suburban, and are trained to the same “you cannot trust your own judgment; you have to trust your minister and the approved versions of the Bible that we allow you to have” as you saw in the rural areas.

    Heck I went to college with a handful of young women, from varying regions of Illinois (including Chicago proper, the Chicago suburbs, and Rockford, in addition to more rural areas), who were all raised the same way.  If you came to any conclusion about anything, whether religious or not*, other than those taught to them in their churches, you were being misled by Satan.

    *Or, God forbid, were taught anything else by a person of the cloth.

  • I think it varies by region. You’re thinking of Alabama, but I’m thinking of Michigan. In states which have an okay public school system, I do not think your observation applies. Plus Alabama and Michigan have rather different histories and cultures.

  • Anecdotally: oh heck yes. I knew of one strip club in a 45-mile radius when I lived in mid-Michigan. I cannot tell you how many strip clubs there are in a 45-mile radius of where I live now in Florida, any more than I could tell you how many churches there are. There are way more of both, and you don’t have to drive more than five miles to find a whole lot of them. 

  • Carstonio

    Based on the billboards I’ve seen when traveling, that correlation seems to hold up. In those states I see ones that are Tea Party and fundamentalist and pro-life.

  • Chloe Lewis

    To be fair, the phrase `looking babies’ has been in (occasional) use since 1800; I think I first ran across it in an Anthony Trollope novel. And the `copulatory gaze’ has been a standard concept for decades (… and in a Jenny Crusie novel). They aren’t new ideas, it’s just very old-fashioned to try and control them. 

  • I think what we’re seeing here is the distinction between actual beliefs, i.e. things that one is convinced by evidence are true, and belief in belief — the idea that believing certain things , such as the tenets of one’s religion, is virtuous, even (or especially) if those things are unsupported or actively contradicted by evidence. See for more on this distinction.

  •  of course they didn’t time it. It was just the stated rule. But they did shut down the lobby in my dorm because of hugging and cuddling on the couches, etc. Then after a month or how ever long it was that it was off limits, we had another meeting in which we were reminded to keep vertical. If people wanted to make out, the only free place was over at the land around a married housing, LOL.

  • I, and every other atheist I’ve known well enough to discuss this with, find that personal experience is the first place the absence of God is found. Learning about the universe, and the absence of any need for God to exist as an explanation for any observable phenomenon, generally comes later than noticing that God does not in fact interact with us, the way religions (Christianity especially, with its emphasis on a “personal relationship with Christ”) lead us to expect he will.

  • P J Evans

    California’s Central Valley. You see the billboards, and the churches, and the posters on roadside poles for gun shows, and for ‘crisis pregnancy centers’. And signs for politicians who never actually give their party affiliation, but nothing on the signs is inconsistent with GOP/tea party.

  • P J Evans

     Christianity especially, with its emphasis on a “personal relationship with Christ”

    Not all Christian churches go there. Fortunately.

  • Sir Quaffler

    If your beliefs can’t handle critical analysis, then your beliefs are stupid.

    I’ve been going through this process for a year or two now. I decided to put my beliefs to the test, decided to see if they actually held up to critical analysis. After all, if I’m to believe that what I believe is totally true, then what I believe should be held up to be true when put to the fire.

    Most things have held up, but some things have changed due to evidence suggesting otherwise. Among these things is this: I am no longer a believer of faith-alone, if you can’t demonstrate your faith by the good works you do then your faith is dead.

    Now I’m in a pretty awkward position; my beliefs don’t really line up with any one branch of Christianity, whether it be Catholicism (which is what it’s closest to, but I have some serious issues with the clergy and their over-devotion to Mary), Baptism (which is what it used to be closest to until I found out that they willingly cut out books of the Bible, among other unsavory aspects of its origins), or anything else. I guess I’m a heretic in that regard, but I know my relationship with God is true, so that can’t be entirely right. Guess I’m just a follower of Jesus Christ.

    Oh well, I can live with that.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Out of curiosity, what’s your opinion on the Gnostic Gospels? They got cut from the Bible too.

  • Sir Quaffler

    Hmm, ‘fraid I haven’t heard of them. I’ll look into it though.